Of all the platformers originating from my childhood days, Sonic the Hedgehog seems to have won my contemporary interest almost by default: not owning a nintendo console since the N64 days has effectively kept Mario away from me, Capcom has swept Mega Man under the rug, Konami has more-or-less torched itself, and I was never big enough on the collectathon-types to be hyped for the likes of Yooka Laylee. But Sonic Generations ranks with Mass Effect 2 and Dark Souls as one of the previous generation’s few bright spots, while the upcoming Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces have me genuinely excited.
No major video game franchise was so thoroughly a product of the 90s as Sonic, and no major franchise tanked as bad as it did when the 90s wound to a close. For the greater part of two decades, Sonic has existed as the most craven example of pushing awful products on the basis of brand loyalty. To gaze upon the visage of a title like Sonic ’06 is to stare deep into the heart of a human cultural artifact whose slothful ineptness and aesthetic awfulness has reached a pitch that almost stands as an impressive accomplishment in its own right.
On the other hand, the official Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account is perhaps the only truly pure and noble work wrought on that website, playing itself as a a self-aware, absurdist fan parody of itself.
Which brings me to Sonic Generations, a 2011 title whose very premise turns Sonic in on itself: a malevolent force is ripping apart space and time, and modern 3D Sonic is forced to team up with classic, 16 bit Sonic in a romp through the various mainline games up to that point. The effect is as ironic as it is celebratory, a kind of self-ribbing which acknowledges that the franchise and its weird sense of 90s Cool has gotten awfully silly over the years. But from a gameplay perspective it also has a solid grasp of what makes Sonic fun in the first place. Sonic Generations thus in a way perfectly embodies the zeitgeist of Sonic fandom, which is as much about embracing something’s campy badness as much as it is nostalgia for an old platformer.
Or at least this is my approximate, largely theoretical grasp of what makes the Sonic fandom tick.
Which brings me to Sonic Forces, a game which, in reuniting classic Sonic and modern Sonic, has set itself up as Generations’ spiritual successor. But added to this is a third protagonist: the player’s own custom made character. In most games, the existence of a custom character representing the player is not particularly noteworthy. But the Sonic fandom is known and mocked for the endless proliferation of bad original characters that have flooded the internet since the dawn of DeviantArt. Thus its presence here suggests a conscious recognition of this aspect of the fandom, and a product that will be an unusual mingling of content and fandom on a level that could launch a thousand academic papers dripping with jargon about the meaning of “fandom.”. The resulting game will no doubt be deliriously stupid, but it may be a ride worth taking.
Which brings me to Sonic Mania, which has fans from the fan game/romhacking community at the helm, thus making it a paradoxical official fan game. This is a wise move for a game pitched as a retro throwback, as these people likely understand the original Genesis games’ coding and design far more intimately than anyone currently staffed at Sega does. And it also, I think, represents a business decision both more magnanimous and profitable than mailing Cease and Desist letters.
Which brings me to the original 3.5 Sega Genesis titles that most everyone has warm, fuzzy feelings about. The games, at their core, take the platformer physics that Super Mario pioneered (where you have to reckon with things like momentum and inertia) and literally running with it, cranking up the speeds to make everything frenetic as that blue rodent bounces through levels in his quest to save his cutesy forest friends. Added to that is the aforementioned attitude that positions Sonic as the cool alternative to Mario’s squareness.
The result is something that has taken some time for me to get back into as an adult. I’m far more used to precision platformers like Mega Man or Castlevania where you have tight controls and a sense of intentionality to your every action. Sonic, on the other hand, is all about calibrating your responsiveness to that of the often janky physics and floaty controls, and these old games can be awful unforgiving about it: death comes swiftly, and an arcade-esque mentality that features limited second chances can quickly get frustrating. These are games you have to learn before they really become enjoyable. But, for me at least, there’s always been a moment when a particular stage just clicks and starts to feel like more of a fun romp.
Sonic 3/Sonic and Knuckles/Sonic 3 and Knuckles/whatever people call it is the true standout here, making good on the franchise’s promise to be the bigger and badder platformer – almost to a fault, with levels that are often so sprawling and long that just clearing them for the first time can feel like a nerve-wracking race against the clock (of course you’re on a limited timer in these games). The thing’s unwieldiness is baked into the game’s own release, being divided into two separate releases that players could literally combine by sticking the two cartridges together (the so-called “lock-on technology”, a concept that could only occur in the mid 90s) to form the complete game.
It’s also unusually backloaded, with the a lot of the most visually interesting areas and set pieces stuffed into the second release, Sonic and Knuckles. There’s a genuinely epic feel to the proceedings as the (relatively) mundane early levels are gradually replaced with more exotic and interesting fare, and the game does indeed look as good as something on the Genesis possibly could. Abetting this is the rocking soundtrack, which managed to make even the frustrating moments less irksome to replay.
In retrospect it’s easy to see how so much of the series hence has been a fumbling attempt to recapture this moment. Sonic 3 & etc is genuinely worthy of the nostalgia that has accrued around it, even if the thing doesn’t exactly welcome you with open arms. Were it not for the existence of Mega Man X, I’d almost be willing to call Sonic 3 & etc my favourite 16 bit platformer.
So it’s been difficult to escape the hype surrounding Sonic Mania, the one game which seems like it has a fair shot at bringing back the magic. But there’s also something to dread here: if Mania turns out to be a game that I love, I’ll have landed myself into yet another weird fandom, thereby accelerating my race to the bottom.